Friday, September 22, 2017

Six-Year Musings, Part 2: Style


(If you haven’t already, please start with Part 1 of this three-part series of musings on my sixth anniversary since I started drawing.)

Every now and then I’ll have a conversation with someone who compliments me on my sketching style and asks how I came to choose or develop that particular style. I always say, “I didn’t choose my style; my style chose me.” I know that sounds facetious or like an attempt to be witty, but it’s something I believe. (I talked about it as far back as 2012 when I was only a year into sketching.)

I’m a little reluctant to talk about artistic style because, honestly, I don’t really know how to define it. We all say things like, “Oh, I like her sketching style,” “He has a distinctive style,” “I wish I could draw in that style,” etc., but what does that mean? Perhaps I’ll just say that style is the thing that characterizes someone’s work in such a way that viewers scanning their Flickr or Facebook thumbnails can identify who made the work without reading the name. You know what I mean, right? For the sake of this discussion, let’s just call that style.

When I first started out, I didn’t think I had my own style, so I looked at the works of many, many sketchers whose styles I admired, and I wished that I could sketch like they do. In some cases, I tried to emulate their styles, but more accurately I was just emulating the tools and materials or even color palettes they used. Sometimes the artist’s materials are so firmly tied to their style that they appear to be inseparable (an example would be KK and his twig), but as all of us who took KK’s workshop can attest, using the same tools does not give us the same style. If I were to draw with a twig every day for years (as KK has), I might eventually gain skill with it, but by that time I would have developed my own twig-drawing style that would look nothing like KK’s.

The reality is that instructors can only teach techniques, skills or how to use materials; they can’t teach us how to develop a style. We have to do that last part ourselves.

That seems so obvious, but believe it or not, it took me a while to understand this. My first two or three years of sketching, I read a lot of books, viewed videos and attended workshops taught by sketchers whose styles I admired. Somewhere in my mind I was hoping that if I learned skills and techniques from them, I would also adopt their styles.

As it turns out, regardless of my studies, my style has evolved on its own and is not of my conscious choosing. It has probably been influenced by others, but not in a way that I’m conscious of. Even though I didn’t recognize it at the time, my style began with the very first sketch I made. (You’ll see from the sketches shown here that while my skills may have changed [I hope!], my basic style has not.) Certainly those books, videos and workshops were not a waste of time, since I’ve gleaned useful information from most of them. But whether I applied the information has been mostly a matter of how well the techniques and approaches enhanced and aligned with what I was already doing. I’m less frustrated if I learn methods and approaches that fit with my style instead of running counter to it.

Sometimes I hear people advise others to “loosen up” or “be bolder with color” or “draw bigger.” Perhaps that kind of advice is helpful. My hunch, though, is that someone who draws with tight, tiny details or prefers soft colors or a small scale will become frustrated trying to take on a style that is radically different from their own. Instead, it might be more satisfying to learn ways to enhance their own way of drawing. (Tomorrow I’ll talk more about how learning and style are related.)

(Once a year on my sketching anniversary, I write a retrospective post. You can read the previous years’ posts here: 20162015201420132012.)

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Six-Year Musings, Part 1: Practice

9/25/11 This was my first urban sketch ever!

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how, after years of struggling with watercolor, I had committed to focusing on colored pencils and was finally starting to make progress. That post and another that followed prompted some comments and discussion that have gotten me thinking more lately about practice and learning and how they are related to style (whatever that may be).

Since I seem to be in a process-oriented frame of mind, and because today is my sixth anniversary since I started drawing, I decided it would be a good opportunity to explore these thoughts in relation to my experiences the past six years and see where they took me (often I don’t know what I think until I write it). I had so much to say that it turned into a three-part series. Today I’ll talk about practice; the next two days will be about style and learning.

(Shown with this series are some of my earliest urban sketches from my first year.)

Regular practice – in my case, drawing every day without fail – is something that comes up whenever a well-meaning Facebook friend or stranger on the street compliments my sketch and then mentions, with a wistful tone, their desire to have “talent” like mine. My response is always that before Sept. 21, 2011, I had no more “talent” than they do, and the only difference between what I can do now compared to what I could do then is the result of regular practice.

I sometimes used to look at those daily practice sketches and question whether they are actually adding to my collective learning about drawing, or whether they are simply part of the accumulation. According to Windows File Explorer, I have more than 6,000 scanned sketches on my laptop. Not included are most of my sketches from the first half of the year before I started blogging (and therefore didn’t scan) and some others since then that I haven’t bothered to scan because I didn’t write blog posts about them. While I have many sketches among those 6,000+ that I believe are adding to my collective learning in some way, many others are nothing more than repetitive.

Does regular practice really help? In some ways, I can see that it does – I look back over my six years’ worth of sketches, and it’s very clear that ongoing practice leads to progress. And regular practice is important in cultivating a habit so that drawing doesn’t depend on inspiration, sufficient time, the right mood, or other nebulous requirements that could prevent me from simply doing it.

But is it enough? That’s what my recent musings about my focus on colored pencils were trying to get at. When learning a specific medium or technique, I don’t think practice is enough, because without instruction of some kind – a book, a video or, ideally, a good instructor or mentor who provides constructive feedback – I’m likely to form a habit of simply repeating the same mistakes. The hard part is keeping up that practice even after you realize you aren’t making progress. I think that’s when many people give up. They have the discipline to practice, but if they aren’t rewarded by progress at least some of the time, it’s too discouraging to continue. That’s the point, I think, when it would be helpful to seek feedback so that you can push past the repeated errors and move forward.

Here’s one more thought about practice that hadn’t occurred to me until recently, and I think it’s important. A discussion in a Facebook group was started by an artist who had posted a drawing in a style that can be called “photo-realistic.” A commenter lamented about her own lack of “talent,” that she would never be able to draw as well as that, and others pitched in with their views. One commenter was especially insightful (I regret that I didn’t copy and save her comment at that moment, as now it’s impossible to find on Facebook, so this is a paraphrase):

An art teacher for many years, she said that while photo realism is one style of art, it is not the ultimate goal or even desire of many artists, and the ability to draw photo-realistically should not be a measure of one’s “talent.” What should be the goal is finding one’s own artistic expression, whatever it is, and one way to find it is by drawing every day. She said she always assigns her students to sketch daily in a sketchbook because even simple doodles done regularly eventually lead to figuring out what kinds of drawings they enjoy making. And if they enjoy it, they’re more likely to continue doing it.

I heard much wisdom in that teacher’s comment. While eventual improvement is good motivation to draw every day, a more important reason to do it is that it teaches you what you like to do. And over time, what you like to do becomes your style.

(Once a year on my sketching anniversary, I write a retrospective post. You can read the previous years’ posts here: 20162015201420132012.)

Monday, September 18, 2017

Hold the Water

9/18/17 Wedgwood neighborhood

Today’s sketch was an experiment (well, I guess they all are, but this one was more consciously experimental than usual):

For most sketches done on location, I’ve habitually used water-soluble colored pencils (mostly my favorite Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelles plus a few others). I don’t even carry traditional colored pencils with me. Compared to using dry colored pencils, it’s so much faster and easier to intensify colors simply by adding water, so it’s only natural that I’d favor watercolor pencils in the field. But the mess I made yesterday when I squirted water on my sketch – I was aiming for the colored pencils, but I forgot that the marker I’d used underneath was water-soluble, too – made me wonder if I rely too much on water to intensify pigments. Under the same time and condition constraints, would traditional colored pencils be that much more difficult or time-consuming to use? I put them to the test.

I could have used my usual set of water-soluble pencils and simply left them dry, but to be honest, I didn’t trust myself to stay away from the water – it’s such an automatic habit now! So I brought along a half-dozen Caran d’Ache Luminance pencils in fall foliage hues, and I went out hunting for color. I chose Luminance specifically because they are among the softest pencils I own, and I knew I could build rich color with them very quickly.

Indeed, this sketch took no longer than any of comparable size and subject that I’ve done with water-soluble colored pencils plus water. (In fact, it may have taken less time because I didn’t have to wait for water to dry before putting in details.) When I use traditional colored pencils at my desk, I build up many layers slowly and gradually, using a light touch and the pencil point held at a 45-degree angle to the paper, as I was taught. But out on the street, I went against everything I’ve learned in class and bore down hard on the broad side of the core to apply as much pigment as quickly as possible. The pigments look just as intense without water, don’t they? What I lacked in finesse I made up for in speed and efficiency. 

This experiment bodes well in another way: Today’s sketch was done on the last page in my current signature of my usual Canson XL 140-pound paper. It’s my favorite when using water-soluble pencils because it holds up well to heavy washes and sprayed water. At least for a while, I’m going to give a serious try to my new Stillman & Birn Nova sketchbook with toned paper. Nova paper is the same weight as S&B’s Alpha paper, which is about 100 pounds and a bit too light for spraying with water. While I’m using a Nova book, I’ll resist water (except in small, controlled doses applied with a waterbrush) and see how I do. Bonus challenge: It takes even more intense color to show up well against a gray or tan background. Am I (and dry colored pencils) up to the challenge? Stay tuned.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

A Change in Weather at Ballard Locks

9/17/17 Salmon Bay Bridge at the Ballard Locks
The first real rain in weeks was predicted for today – just in time for USk Seattle’s outing at the Ballard Locks. If and when the rain did come, I was planning to duck inside the fish ladder area. By 10:30 a.m., though, the sun was still darting in and out of clouds, so I went to the parking lot on the south side of the Ship Canal. Although I’ve sketched the Salmon Bay Bridge several times, I’d never been able to catch it in the open position. My luck stayed with me – the sun came out just long enough to put in those shadows on the bridge. (Too bad I forgot that the marker I used for that is water-soluble, so when I sprayed the foliage underneath, the bridge got a little blurry.)

9/17/17 Ballard Locks
Crossing the canal again, I stopped at the Locks at a busy spot – not just busy with pedestrians, but also visually busy. I have no idea what this yellow thing is in the foreground, but it apparently has a nautical purpose. In any case, it was just the right time to initiate my new Stillman & Birn Nova gray-toned sketchbook. Along with my graphite drawing class, I figure this book will give me a good tonal workout during the coming gray months. 

We got an excellent USk turnout on this iffy-weather morning! And fortunately for us, the rain waited until my drive home to finally start falling. 

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Funko Fun

9/16/17 Funko store at the corner of California Street and Wetmore Avenue
Last month the new Funko store opened in downtown Everett to much local fanfare. Pop culture toys are generally off my radar, so I didn’t even know about the store until I saw Gabi Campanario’s Seattle Sketcher column about the grand opening. But as soon as I saw his sketches, I knew I had to get up there sometime soon!

A half-hour north of Seattle, Everett is a hard-working town without much of what would be called “color,” so Funko has added a big bright spot to the town’s center. Pop culture icons like Chewbacca, Mickey Mouse, Batman and Harry Potter decorate the store’s awnings on two sides of the building. I had a lot to choose from, but today I focused on Freddy Funko, the store’s own mascot, high above the store’s entrance. Spider-man and Batman look down from the covered walkway between the store and the parking garage. 

Inside the store, it’s like a mini-Disneyland of giant Funko pop characters. So dazzled by the colorful d├ęcor, I almost forgot it was a store. I spent the most time in the Star Wars area, since those characters are the only pop culture icons I have any affinity for. The least expensive things I saw in the whole store were keychains for $5 and pens for $3. A cool Star Wars backpack I wanted was $70! I passed on that. 

Funko storefront

Me and Han (or is it Luke?)

Me and Chewie

Princess Leia Wobblers

Star Wars pens
I want this backpack! (But not for $70.)

This Stormtrooper clutch would make a great pencil case/sketch kit!

Friday, September 15, 2017

PARK(ing) Day in Maple Leaf

9/15/17 Pop-up park in the Maple Leaf neighborhood

Who knew that international PARK(ing) Day has been going on for a decade? It’s an annual event to “raise awareness about the importance of walkable, livable and healthy communities.” I first heard about it last year when Urban Sketchers Tacoma took part in it. Then earlier this week I was reading our neighborhood blog, Maple Leaf Life, and learned that a “pop-up park” would be installed today just a few blocks north of our house.

Greg and I walked up to Northeast 85th Street this afternoon and found that a few parking spaces on Fifth Avenue Northeast had been cordoned off, and chairs and benches had been hospitably provided. A coffee urn, a cooler of beverages and snacks were offered to neighbors walking and biking by to see what was going on. The idea is to use a space normally reserved for cars as a place for people to gather. Aimee (in the green T-shirt), a leader of the Maple Leaf Greenways organization, spearheaded the pop-up park at that busy intersection. 

It was fun to meet a few people, exchange thoughts on neighborhood issues and discuss possible solutions. Heck, it was just fun to stand in the warm sunshine sketching the event on a beautiful Friday afternoon.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Dayton Maples

9/14/17 Greenwood neighborhood (water-soluble colored pencil)
The traffic circle at 83rd and Dayton in the Greenwood neighborhood is one of my favorite harbingers of fall. Three slender maples were planted by an arborist who must have chosen three varieties that would turn on staggered schedules. The one on the north side always begins to color first, and the one on the south side is the last to finish. I sketch these maples in the fall more often than any other trees, and they are the most fun to track over the course of a season.

I looked through my scanned images and found the one below from 2014 with the closest date – Sept. 17. Sketched from the opposite side of the traffic circle, the one on the left is the north tree. It had quite a bit more color that year than it does today. Stay tuned – I’ll sketch them again in another month or so. 

(Since I’m occupied with graphite for the next 10 weeks, I have a feeling I’m going to rely even more heavily than usual on maples to give me my much-needed color fixes this fall.)

9/17/14 watercolor and colored pencil
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